sep2013
Article by SHABANA HUSSAIN

A 1965 American fantasy sitcom seems more likely to inspire giggles and groans, not business ideas. But that’s how it worked out for Akhilesh Pandya. Growing up in the early days of cable TV in India, Pandya was hooked to I Dream of Jeannie, where a 2,000-year-old genie appears out of a bottle to magically perform difficult tasks in — literally — the blink of an eye. Finishing his homework and arranging his schedule to ensure he didn’t miss a single episode was second nature to the young Pandya. So much so that when, a couple of decades later, he decided to turn entrepreneur, one of his first ideas centred on Jeannie. “Jeannie would try to make her master’s worries vanish. I wanted to offer something similar — an online version who will handle your tasks with care and take away worries,” says the 37-year-old first-generation entrepreneur.

The result was GenieOnCall, which started off in January 2012 as a virtual assistant but has quickly expanded to become a “lifestyle management assistant”, offering help in almost everything — from paying utility bills and organising birthday parties to making a presentation, software and web development to architecture and interior design. Nearly 18 months later, Pandya’s start-up will close FY14 with a projected Rs 50 lakh in revenue, has close to 400 clients and is expanding out of its home base in Agra, to the National Capital Region (NCR).

The accidental entrepreneur

Pandya’s brush with business is pure happenstance. A native of Agra, he moved out of the city after graduating in economics. More than a decade later, he quit his job with OKS Group, a knowledge process outsourcing company, and returned to Agra when his mother took ill. Having handled the Dun & Bradstreet account while at OKS, he continued his association with the information company by taking on consulting assignments across geographies. “But I was travelling all the time, which defeated the purpose for which I had moved back,” Pandya recalls. That’s when the idea of working for himself struck. “Everyone needs help some time or the other, but they don’t always get it. Wouldn’t a portal where all services are provided make life easier and help people get a lot more done?” Pandya explains the rationale.

With about Rs 4 lakh from his savings, Pandya set up GenieOnCall, investing in the website and IT infrastructure. There was no money left to pay salaries, so he didn’t hire any staff, taking on assignments himself. Given his experience in the outsourcing and online world, the first service the company offered was a virtual assistant, providing administrative and technical support over the net — from internet research, replying to e-mail and taking messages, to providing assistance with travel arrangements, etc. “There were many sleepless nights at the time because I had no help at all,” he says now. “I was targeting busy professionals, but the kind of customers that came in asked for so many different services.”

That’s because, he reasons, a virtual assistant isn’t all that different from a flesh-and-blood one. “Once you have a personal assistant, it’s human nature to delegate all types of chores — official as well as personal. Similarly, with us, once that trust and rapport is built with the customer, they will see us as their one and only source of information and assistance.” He cites examples to underline his theory. A customer who had signed on for a virtual assistant came back to ask for a website designer for his wife’s business; another client wanted help with his accounts in addition to the virtual assistant. Then there’s Ashok Subramanian, a neurolinguistic programming trainer who runs Shinota Consulting. One of GenieOnCall’s earliest customers for virtual assistant services, Subramanian now outsources all his “mundane work” to the company, such as travel arrangements, accounting, calling up people for feedback and content writing for brochures. “I have slowly done away with office staff — I work with Genie on a contract basis, paying Rs 30,000-40,000 a month, less than what I used to pay as salaries.” He credits Pandya’s team with being proactive in spotting opportunities for business promotion. “They were the ones to suggest a social media presence and now manage it also for me,” he adds.

Making the magic work

How does the GenieOnCall model work? Pandya now has a team of 35 “genies”, many of them holding degrees in management and engineering. Clients can choose either virtual assistant packages — which begin with 50 hours of assistance every month — or one-time assignments such as making a presentation, designing a website and so on. The typical turnaround time for most one-off services, such as finding a spa or making travel arrangements, is two or three hours, although some assignments, such as making a presentation, could take eight hours or more.

Genie’s charges also depend on the service requested — while a virtual assistant can come for between Rs 7,500 and Rs 20,000 a month, one-off assignments cost anywhere from Rs 1,500-1.2 lakh. As of now, one-time assignments don’t include concierge services but involve more complex work such as web designing and research work, for which Genie charges Rs 150-200 per hour.

Virtual assistant services are popular in the West and are now picking up in India as well. GenieOnCall certainly has several competitors in this space. Brickwork India and Indian VA are among the earliest players in the business, having been around for a decade or so. There are also players such as Taskbarge, Flatworld Solutions, the TTK Group’s GetFriday and Datacore Technologies, as well as smaller outfits such as bookmyva and OnDemandVA.

What sets GenieOnCall apart, then? Simply, its bouquet of services includes anything that can be outsourced, whether in the corporate world or in personal life. “We have a request from a Mumbai executive who has used our services in the past and wants an errand boy to buy her groceries. We’re looking into that,” says Pandya. Amit Nagar, a corporate executive, got in touch with GenieOnCall on a friend’s recommendation. “We have a new service support office in Bangladesh and Genie gave us contacts of vendors for setting up the office, communication lines, vendors for laptops, computers and even transport facilities.” Nagar says his company now plans to use the firm’s services at its other offices as well.

The company’s services portfolio has been ramped up in the past months to include accountancy, legal, customer management and HR services. The expansion that has Pandya the most excited is concierge services, where GenieOnCall offers to take over routine chores like paying bills, helping find doctors, plumbers, beauty salons and even astrologers. “There is so much scope for this business, especially in the B2B space,” Pandya says. GenieOnCall has already been providing such services to companies in the NCR, where Pandya says business has grown simply through word of mouth. Here’s how it works: a GenieOnCall staffer visits the client’s office every day at a set time and picks up all the odd jobs the client’s employees want done, including utility bills, bank work and bureaucratic work. “Our SLA [service level agreement or the contracted delivery time] is 48 hours, but 90% of the time, the work is completed a few hours after pick-up,” says Pandya proudly.

The Essel group’s Noida campus, which has over 2,000 employees, has been a client for the past eight months. Ashutosh Mishra, vice-president, HR, Dish TV, believes the arrangement with Genie is working better than the previous concierge service hired by the group, since the start-up scores well on punctuality and dependability, two key requirements from such a service. “Our people are mostly in their late 20s. Their requirements are mostly sending money back home, sending flowers or cakes, and paying mobile and credit card bills. Genie representatives are polite and helpful — even if they can’t provide a service, they tell people how to get it done.”

Branching out

Accolades like these are prompting Pandya to look beyond Agra. He is already in the process of setting up Genie’s first office outside the city, in Noida. He plans to soon open offices in all the metros, purely to deal with customer perception, as “there is a mistaken belief that tier 2 cities won’t be able to deliver world-class services.”

Still, there are advantages to being in a small town, the biggest being lower costs. The dearth of employment opportunities also means Genie is able to pick up suitable employees relatively easily and at lower salaries. All of which helps the firm keep its rates competitive — Pandya claims that Genie’s rates are among the lowest in the virtual assistant space. “Most companies charge $6-60 per hour. Our pricing is much lower than the lowest pricing band of other service providers,” says Pandya. “We will also begin marketing from August onward, and so we expect our revenue to more than double this year.”

That is why, he says, private equity players have expressed interest in coming on board GenieOnCall. While nothing’s been finalised yet, Pandya admits to being in talks with investors. He’s currently making plans for expanding the scope of operations once funding is in. Genie is revamping its website and will soon launch a mobile application. “We are investing in technology to make sure our systems are foolproof, so that the information we store remains confidential,” he adds. This way, Pandya is ensuring that his clients are at ease outsourcing their worries.